in Digital Web

Debunking “You have to go where the students are…”

“If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?” – Someone’s mom.

Following students to social networking sites like Facebook and alumni to LinkedIn are a pretty popular trend right now. The common refrain is, “You have to go where the students are to reach them.” But this pervasive refrain ignores a very powerful message embedded within that statement that says, “What we’re doing on the web right now doesn’t work for us, so we need a better way to get it to work for us.”

Extending that a bit further, it’s akin to saying that the telephones on campus aren’t working and we can’t call anyone, so we all bought cell phones so we could reach each other.

If the latter statement were true, someone would rush to fix the problem in a heartbeat and wouldn’t need to ask why it needed to happen. With the web? It’s still considered a piece of community property that no one wants to cede in a lot of places.

You can’t suffocate a message

It doesn’t last long for you to hold onto it, as if it belongs to you and no one else. You have to get it out. The problem is, social networking sites aren’t the venue for most institutional messages. It validates to students that “our web site is useless for the purpose of getting information, so just go to Facebook.” But if the third party site goes down, what do you do? Send them back to the institutional web site?

Colleges and universities with deep pockets or access to top talent can usually respond to these sorts of challenges faster than others, which is no big surprise. But using social networks can’t be viewed as a panacea, instead, we need to establish why we’re using them and adhere to that purpose. If web sites are rigid and inflexible, we need to fix them.


The reasons you shouldn’t invest your energy in a social networking presence for your institution:

  • It implies that Facebook owns your school’s message.
  • Weakens the brand and creates a viral effect where students tell others — family, friends, potential donors — to visit a third-party site to get institutional information, rather than the web site.
  • Replicates bad on-campus communication to the web, by circumventing the need to fix those problems by simply working around them.
  • On the other hand, a social network can be a great tool to:

  • Extend your brand into a new domain, especially for prospective students who don’t have access to on-campus information that might be relevant to them.
  • Share “winning moments” or other information from you web site that might be of interest to students, alumni and others.
  • Integrate it as a solution that redirects them back to your site.
  • The institutional web site has fully arrived as a “marketing tool” on many campuses and the uneasy balance between trying to reach the students of the future, while connecting to their parents, alumni and pretty much anyone else with a rooting interest in the school can be a difficult task at times, especially for smaller schools and community colleges.

    You don’t have to go where the students are to reach them, you need to adapt your web strategy to reach them more effectively. There’s no better place to that than on your college’s own web site.

    11 Comments

    1. I think if universites aren’t using their web sites to their fullest potential, relying on third party tools to do it a really bad precedent to set. I can only imagine if Friendster had lasted long enough to get popular with higher ed, how many places would’ve been disappointed when students abandoned it in droves.

      Students use social media to get engaged with who they want to engage with and I’m not convinced that institutions that don’t approach it with the right strategy are going to get the ROI they want from it and as a result, they’re just going to waste their time searching for something that’s simply not there.

      Thank for the follow-up, Rick!

    2. Ron, just caught your post the second time around. Thanks for your thoughtfulness on the subject. I agree with some commenting that universities need to be in both, and need to do both well. Enrollment professionals do need to go where the students are, but in the spirit of that medium. So, in social media, they do need to be a part of the conversation about their school. Even though vendors are working hard to incorporate social media elements into college websites, it looks to me that increasingly students and prospective students are using university websites for corporate information: admissions requirement, catalog content, faculty information, etc. A university better have a very good website. But students are increasingly using social media to talk. IMO, it’s nuts for a college not to be in that space with a well thought out strategy.

    3. I think it comes down to a matter of numbers, in the end. No matter how much work done on the front end by consultants, strategists and whoever else, institutions are still charged with getting the day-to-day things done to ensure that their presence is working.

      Deploying yourself across the social media diaspora might sound like a wonderful idea from a strategic point of view. But the crux of my argument is, doing so poorly can actually *hurt* more than it’ll help.

      So being deliberate in terms of extending yourself to the social space is really the best way to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward. If your institutional web presence is lacking, secondary tools don’t offer the same value as they could.

      It’s most certainly possible to do both and they should strive to do it, but a lot of schools simply don’t have the manpower to accomplish it, so sending them on a suicide mission towards social web domination without the proper tools is less than stellar of an idea in my opinion.

      Thanks for the comments folks, as always!

    4. I think your argument is based on an either/or proposition that doesn’t quite work. The choice is not whether you should focus on your web site or focus on building a presence on social media. In fact, there is not choice. Right now you need to do both well. Your web site functions in the social web whether you want it to or not–content leaks from your site, you can’t stop it. At the same time, anyone with any recruiting experience will tell you that there is no magic bullet…in other words, social media has to play a role in a larger, integrated campaign.

    5. Good stuff! This is a common sense approach that had not fully occurred to me, yet. Thanks for insight.

    6. Great post. I’m going to blog some follow-up thoughts on SquaredPeg. Thanks for the Monday Morning blog thought.

    7. Ron, bravo! I couldn’t agree more. Extending your institution’s reach to Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., is great *so long as* you’ve done the hard work to tune up your website and continue to tweak it to ensure that it remains up-to-date and relevant. And don’t get me started on Twitter!

    8. Another good, contrarian post with meat. I think it’s important to have somewhat of a presence on social networking sites as part of the mix, in the sense of extending the university brand, as you describe it. But there’s a tendency for those of us who get into social media to see it as the end-all.

      It boils down to resources (people and money), and where you want to focus them.

    9. Conversations are initiated and for so many kids, they never find the “right” fit because it ends up becoming a contest in which they have to distinguish the best amongst the worst options.

      All of the points you make are valid, though. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple for many institutions to flip a switch towards messaging that’s more nimble and responsive to the realities of the now.

    10. It’s not about going ‘where the students are.’ It’s about going where the conversation is.
      Obviously a universities own website is the backbone of their web based message, but social networking provides an opportunity to allow your audience to interact with that content and explore their experience with your brand.

      Colleges/Universities shouldn’t simply be providing the same content you can find on their main website, on social networking sites. If that’s what they’re doing than they’re definitely missing the point. The point is to have, and be a part of, a conversation with your community. It’s about making that communication a two way street.

      Higher Ed needs to realize (and many have) that we don’t own or control the conversation anymore. Take some time to listen and it’s obvious the number one reason colleges/universities SHOULD be involved in social networking is because their audience/community wants them to be.

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